Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Wilder Times

The A.V. Club has a piece on the films of Billy Wilder.  This is where I usually take them to task for getting it wrong, but, in fact, Ryan Vlastelica gets it right, pretty much delimiting Wilder's best work, his middle work and his weakest.

There are few directors with a more distinguished filmography (and that's not even counting the scripts he wrote but didn't direct). He tried many different genres, but all the films feature sharp writing--usually done with co-writers Charles Brackett or I.A.L. Diamond--as well as cynical characters and solid story construction.  If they have a flaw, they may be a bit overwritten--everything is laid out too carefully.  But after watching countless muddled or pointless titles, this is a flaw you wish more films had.

Vlastelica's essay is pretty good at determining which are the major films to see if you want to learn about him, and which ones should follow.  But let me quibble with his five "essentials." Obviously, only five titles mean you'll leave out some major stuff, but still...

Here they are, and apparently in order of importance:

1.  The Apartment

2.  Double Indemnity

3.  Sunset Boulevard

4.  Ace In The Hole

5.  Stalag 17

All fine films, but here are five just as good (in chronological order):

1. The Major And The Minor

It may seem like fluff, but it's a delightful confection, taking a rather thin idea and keeping it moving forward throughout.  It's the first film Wilder directed, and for sheer charm I'm not sure if he ever topped it.

2.  The Lost Weekend

A Best Picture Oscar winner. Okay, not as hard-hitting today as it seemed then, but then, some of his other Oscar winners may not be as tough as remembered.  And considering more social problem films are snoozers, it's good to see it done properly.

3.  Sabrina

Okay, nowhere near his greatest comedy, but I think it's grown in stature over the years, and just seeing Audrey Hepburn at her height, and the oddly cast against type William Holden and Humphrey Bogart keep it interesting. (Though perhaps if Wilder got Cary Grant, as he originally wanted, the film would work better--but then, he was always trying to get Grant and never did.)

4.  Some Like It Hot

This is the omission I find most inexplicable.  Wilder's greatest comedy, and one of the greatest of all, Vlastelica recognizes its importance, but puts down it comedy content.  He should see it with a large audience.

5.  The Fortune Cookie

Yes, I know it's not top-tier Wilder.  But something draws me to it, and that's the Oscar-winning performance of Walter Matthau.  The trouble is it's for Best Supporting Actor.  Jack Lemmon is the star, but the stuff we care about comes from his shyster brother-in-law.  When Matthau's on screen, this has some of the strongest comedy Wilder's ever done, and he'd certainly never match it again.

Here are five other Wilder films worth watching--perhaps flawed in some ways, but still adding something to his work that you can't get elsewhere:

1.  Five Graves To Cairo
2.  A Foreign Affair
3.  The Seven Year Itch
4.  Witness For The Prosecution
5.  Irma La Douce

And then there's always Kiss Me, Stupid, which doesn't quite work but has to be seen to be believed.

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